06 June 2007

Peter Simpson: A Pioneer In Canadian Cinema

Peter R. Simpson, one of Canada's most successful and outspoken media and film moguls, passed away yesterday at the age of 64 after a battle with lung cancer.

Simpson first made his mark in advertising, when he gambled on the once-controversial concept of the "stand-alone" media management company by forming Media Buying Services (MBS) in 1969. Simpson's model was eventually adopted around the globe, leading to the creation of such powerful agencies as OMD and Starcom MediaVest Group. After a modest launch, MDS gained stature with major players like Playtex, Dominion Stores and K-Tel. Simpson would eventually sell off his international offices in the early 1980s and devote himself full-time to film production and distribution.

In 1971, Simpson formed "Simcom"--later Norstar Filmed Entertainment--and during the "tax shelter" boom of the 1970s, produced some of Canada’s most financially successful and (thus) critically-reviled attempts at commercial (read: “American”-styled) moviemaking. Over his career, he produced more than 40 feature films, miniseries, and documentaries, and distributed many independent and foreign films in addition to his own, eventually earning him a Genie (the Canuck “Oscar”) from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television in 2004 for his "special contribution" to national cinema.

When director Paul Lynch brought Simpson a painting of a heart with a knife through it, they launched the successful "Prom Night" series, for which Simpson would co-direct the third installment, "Prom Night 3: The Last Kiss", with Ron Oliver. 80s-horror completists will fondly recall Simpson's other genre efforts, ranging in quality from the John Vernon/Samantha Eggar spam-in-a-cabin camp howler "Curtains" to Vic Arin's claustrophobic suspense drama "Cold Comfort" --think a winter-set prairie "Misery"--with Maury Chaykin and Paul Gross.

In 2001, Simpson became the target of much public protest when he announced plans to finance a feature film based on the Stephen Williams bestseller "Invisible Darkness", a chronicle of the southern Ontario Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka murders, with Jason Priestly rumoured to play Bernardo. That film never got made, but Simpson did defiantly represent Joel Bender's "Karla", which was produced by Quantum Entertainment and starred "That 70s Show"s Laura Prepon as Homolka.

I was employed by Norstar Entertainment on several productions early in my career, when Simpson’s operation was the closest thing to Roger Corman's New World Pictures a fledging filmmaker like me had access to, at least in the Toronto area. Inspired by Dante, Arkush, Demme et al, and determined to cut my teeth on low-budget genre films, I submitted a few storyboard samples and screenplays to Simpson shortly after graduation and to my amazement I got an offer right away to draw the boards for "Prom Night 4". That particular assignment didn't work out--mostly because of my immediate dislike for its director--but within a week, I found myself sketching a psychotic, axe-wielding David Keith for Ron Oliver's Niagara Falls-noir "Liar's Edge". It wouldn't be the first Shannon Tweed vehicle I worked on, either...

Simpson rarely visited the sets but I had a chance to speak with him here and there at Norstar's Bellair Street offices. I remember him an amiable chap who treated a then-novice like me as a professional, especially when he was trying to talk me into accepting a reduced fee, which was usually the case (I think I made less than $10 an hour during a frenzied weekend marathon of drawing for “Cold Sweat”, with Ben Cross, SCTV’s Dave Thomas, and yes, Shannon Tweed). If I have one regret, it's that in these moments I didn't sell myself to him harder--after all, this was the one man who could've bankrolled one of my scripts and given me my shot at directing, but at the time I was too meek and modest--typically "Canadian"--to fashion myself as anything more than a movie-mad kid who could draw really well, really fast. Years later, I'm on that Grail quest, and sadly there are very few of Simpson’s kind left on the Canadian film scene who encourage young talent and are willing to give a newcomer a break.

Simpson's son, Brock, is a Toronto-based actor, writer, director (he's the only performer to appear in all four "Prom Night" films, too).

Here's an interview with Simpson from a few years back, courtesy of the 80s-oriented horror site The Terror Trap.